Social Justice Education in Action

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]

Since the end of the 2009-2010 school year, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has laid off more than 1,300 teachers, cut language, arts, sports and after-school programs, and increased class sizes to 33. Cuts and layoffs have been on the horizon for months due to a looming $370 million budget deficit, and still more are to come. Teachers, parents and students are bearing the brunt of cutbacks, even as news came out this spring that top CPS officials received substantial pay raises. According to Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) president Karen Lewis, teacher and para-professional salaries accounted for 62% of the CPS budget in 2004. As of 2009, salaries to the individuals working directly with Chicago’s young people had fallen to 49%.

So where is the money going? That’s the question CTU, led by the newly elected Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), was asking as it entered budget negotiations with the Board of Education this summer. A new parent coalition, called Raise Your Hand, came together in April of 2010 to ask Mayor Daley what he is doing about funding public education in Chicago, but has yet to receive an answer. And students themselves have been doing their homework and asking pointed questions in an attempt to get to the root of the current budget crisis.

On April 8, 2010 more than 300 students walked out of their high schools and made their rounds to CPS Headquarters, City Hall, the State Building and the Federal Building protesting budget cuts and delivering a list of demands at each location. This summer I sat down with Javier Lara (JL) and Leonardo Rivera (LR), two recent graduates of Little Village Social Justice High School, to talk about the student walkout they helped organize and their perspectives on social justice in education.-—Robin Hewlett (RH)


RH:  Javier and Leo, you were two of the key organizers for the walkout that happened in April. Can you tell me how the walkout came about and how you got involved in organizing?

LR: I don’t remember who was the first person to tell me, but some students were aware that CPS had proposed budget cuts for next year. We had a half-day and those students planned a meeting in the afternoon.

JL: I got the word from another student that there was going to be a meeting in regard to the budget cuts, and Leo and I went because we wanted to know what was going on. I was really surprised. I didn’t think there were going to be so many people, but there were so many students at the meeting. There were students sitting on the ground.

LR: It was like the number of students they want to put in each classroom next year.

JL: Yeah, we were really packed in. And it was really really exciting. I felt like I was in the middle of so many different speeches. Students were arguing: “We have to do this.” And then over in the corner someone else was saying: “We have to do this!” And in the other corner there were students saying: “No, it’s not going to work.” “We have to do this!” It was really intense, really exciting. There were students there from all grade levels, but the ones that were taking the leadership were us, the seniors.

RH: How did a plan come together from all those different ideas and conversations?

JL: The walkout was the most attractive idea. When someone mentioned a walkout, I think it just built up a lot of momentum. A lot of students responded to that and felt like: “Yeah, walkout, let’s go! Right?” That’s why we decided to do the walkout as our first step.

LR: And that day after the meeting we started making flyers, posters, t-shirts and things like that.

JL: Since there were a lot of students taking leadership, it was difficult because we had to plan when the walkout was going to happen and how, and we had to know who was doing what, who was going to take on certain roles.

LR: The week after that, we had spring break and we got a text message to go to a meeting at UIC.

JL: Yeah, someone from another school started organizing meetings at UIC. And they called us because they heard we were organizing for a walkout at our school.

LR: At the first meeting there were students from Whitney Young, Lane Tech, Uplift, Julian, and our school—Social Justice.

RH: What happened at the UIC meetings?

LR: Basically we came up with a list of demands.

JL: The day we walked out, we went to four different locations: CPS, City Hall, the State Building and the Federal building. We had a different list of demands for each place. At CPS, I delivered the demands that they not increase class sizes, and that they not cut teachers’ pensions. Instead, we wanted them to cut from the raises at the top.

LR: I delivered the demands to the State Building. We asked them to look into CPS, to launch a full investigation of why the budget is being cut, and how. And there was also a piece about taxes—where to increase taxes, how to use TIF money.

JL: It was really cool because during the planning, while we were coming up with our demands, we each had a specific role. Mine was to research what steps the State could take to prevent the budget cuts. Someone else had to investigate CPS. And it was really interesting because you could learn a lot about the government level, what they were doing, how the money was being spent, and stuff like that. So we had 20 students and every meeting a couple more would show up. And we were really building up momentum.

RH: What role did your teachers play?

LR: Our teachers basically said: “This is what we prepared you for.”

JL: They were our biggest supports. I just looked at them and had to ask myself: “Oh man, what is Miss Mack going to do after her job is taken away?” It was a valuable moment because after that we got to look at our teachers not just from a student perspective, but also from a humanity perspective. They were still our teachers, but I think we could look at them and know that maybe they have two kids for example, and think about what would happen if they lost their jobs. I think the social justice education was very unique and rare. I’m not sure if it will be the same because of the budget cuts and teachers being laid off and teachers leaving.

LR: We’re graduating, so we know it will affect them more than it affects us actually. But I personally didn’t want to see anything happen to Social Justice or any other school.

RH: How has this experience affected you on a personal level—both organizing the walkout and receiving a social justice focused education generally?

LR: I think going to Social Justice has made me more mature. I was really immature until my junior year. Then I started noticing things at school and it really hit me: “Wow, this school means a lot to me.” And I think before planning the walkout, I didn’t take my education as seriously as I do now. Now I kind of know what I want to do. I want to help people. I don’t know specifically how, but if it wasn’t for this I think I’d still be lost.

JL: I think I grew a lot as a person and as a leader. And I’m sure Leo and all the other students grew a lot as leaders. I really appreciate the fact that Social Justice High School taught us to question our surroundings: “Why am I here?” Question our path: “Where am I going?” I think that’s a really important thing that anyone, just as a regular person, should ask themselves.

LR: Our teachers just kept questioning us: “Why?” “Why do you care about this?” “Why do you want to be involved?” And they shared their own stories. They had similar experiences and I wouldn’t have expected that.

JL: Our teachers made us challenge ourselves and connect everything to personal experience. I think being at Social Justice High School I learned how to connect my emotions with my surroundings. I think there are schools in this country that teach you how to be a good student, but they don’t teach how to be a good person. Being a person and learning basic humanity and values, and connecting to your surroundings, it seems like a lot of students don’t get that until later, until college, but Social Justice High School was really good at giving us that. And I can honestly say that I know a couple of students who didn’t care before. They didn’t want to come to school and learn about social justice. But then after the budget cuts, after that entire movement, they started to realize: “Oh, this is serious, this is really effecting my life.” So the actions were a successful experience because it really made students learn other things. A lot of what we learn at Social Justice we don’t leave at school. I take all that stuff back to my life and apply it at home and everywhere else. ◊


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